When I put down a deposit last month on the Brazil trip for next July, I told myself I was not going to try to learn Portuguese.

Given how much I love to travel, I’m constantly wishing my language skills were better. I learned some Spanish in high school, though it didn’t really take. I’ve worked on trying to get better in recent years, as my travels have taken me to countries like Mexico, Cuba, Peru, and Costa Rica. And, being quite fond of Italy, I recently spent several years taking Italian lessons, to the point where I could actually carry on a halting conversation with someone in Italy—as long as that someone had a lot of time and patience.

But learning a language as an adult is hard, and I don’t think there’s room in my brain for anything beyond a little Spanish and a little Italian. As for Portuguese, well, there’s Brazil next July, and I do hope to get to Portugal someday, but that doesn’t seem to justify the time it would take to learn an entire new language.

I would, however, like to just expose myself to a little Portuguese. To get to Brazil and be able to say “Hello” and “Thank you” and “I’m here to photograph birds” and “May I have a Diet Coke with ice?” Maybe also to recognize a few of the words I see on menus and road signs.

To that end, I’ve turned to my old friend Duolingo.

If you’re not familiar with it, Duolingo is an awesome smartphone app that breaks down the process of learning a language into small, manageable chunks, and makes it fun besides. (Hat tip here to our deputy editor at The Penn Stater, Ryan Jones, for telling me about Duolingo a several years ago.) You pick the language you want to learn from more than two dozen choices. And it’s free.

I spend a little time—like, five minutes tops—with Duolingo every single day, and that’s been true for probably three years now. Until recently I had my Duolingo app set to Spanish, but for the past month or so I’ve had it on Portuguese. I now know how to say “Hi!” (oi!) and “Good morning!” (bom dia) and “Thank you” (obrigada—or, if you’re a male, you say obrigado).

I’m noticing that there are, not surprisingly, some parallels between Portuguese and languages like Spanish and Italian. The word for milk, for example, is leite, which is pronounced almost like the Spanish leche. And “goodbye” is tchau, pronounced like the Italian ciao. Then there are other words that seem to come out of nowhere: The word for pineapple, for example, is abacaxi (pronounced ah-bah-kah-SHEE). I have no idea why.

Again, I have no illusions that I’ll actually learn Portuguese. Duolingo likes to tell me that I’m doing great: A week or two ago it announced that I was 2 percent fluent, which was nice but probably not accurate, and now it seems like that percentage jumps every day. Today I got a message that I’m 15 percent fluent, which I can assure you I am not.

I figure in a month or two, as the Antarctica trip draws closer, I’ll put the Portuguese project on the shelf and switch Duolingo back to Spanish. That’s because we’ll spend a few days in Buenos Aires and then Ushuaia, at the southern tip of Argentina, before boarding the ship to the Antarctic. And then once we’re on the ship? I’m told that the crew speaks two languages: French and English. Given my utter incompetence with French, I plan on sticking to English.


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